Sara Jaaksola's first experience of China goes back to before she was even born; from her mother's belly to the present day, a passion for all things China has led to her Guangzhou. It's a city that may not top the list of China travel destinations, but for Sara, Guangzhou is the culmination of a lifetime of seeking, learning and dreaming and here she shares her experience and some insider tips on things to do in Guangzhou, the city she now calls home.>>>China Travel: Your blog is called "Living a Dream in China"—what inspired your passion for China and how did you come to be living in Guangzhou?
Sara: This is a question I have been asked multiple times and I can't fully explain why I have this huge interest in China. My best explanation is that while my mother was expecting me she was living in Beijing with my father. Maybe there was something in the air that mixed in my head back then! Unfortunately I was born in Finland and didn't get to start learning Chinese since day one.
I guess when I was a kid my parents, especially my father, used to tell me stories and show me photos from those few years in China. My passion for China and everything Chinese grew during my childhood and I remember doing a presentation about China in the 5th or 6th grade.
Visiting or living in China was always my biggest dream but I wasn't sure would it ever come true. I settled on watching Chinese movies and reading every book about China I could get my hands on. Then, when I started university in 2008, I also started learning Chinese and gradually my desire to visit China became stronger. It was in autumn 2009 when I made the decision to go to Guangzhou for a student exchange. I planned everything so it would be easy to come back after half a year, but I already had a feeling that I was going to stay.
Why did I move to Guangzhou then? Simply because my university back in Finland had agreement with Guangzhou University and it was easy to do a student exchange here. My first plan was to move to Beijing, but then I met my Chinese boyfriend and decided to stay in the south.
China Travel: Did you ever blog back home or was it something you started here?
Sara: I started blogging in 2007, first writing about my preparation for university entrance exams. Then
later on I started a blog about my daily life and finally in spring 2010 started my first English blog. I found excellent blogs about China and wanted to become a part of that online community.
China Travel: Have you had the chance to travel very much in China? Tell us about your best experience so far.
Sara: In February and March 2010 when I first I came to China I spent five weeks traveling from north to
south. Besides Guangzhou I have visited more than ten cities in China plus Hong Kong.
I think the best travel experience so far was the two weeks I spent in Beijing.
It was the first stop in my journey and everything was new, exciting and maybe also little bit frightening.
I used to study history back in Finland so I was thrilled to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and all the other big and important historical sites in Beijing with my own eyes.
China Travel: And your worst?
Sara: The worst was my next stop in Pingyao, in Shanxi Province. I did love the UNESCO World Heritage city, but in February it was so cold that I was freezing the whole time. You might think: "How's that possible for a someone from Finland!" It was quite nice weather in Beijing and I thought it would be warmer if I traveled 12 hours towards the south. I just forgot that the heating in courtyard houses probably isn't the best!
China Travel: You're based in Guangzhou. What are your top 5 recommendations for a first time visitor to get a real feel for the city?
Sara: First I would recommend to experience the two different sides of Guangzhou.
1. First head to Beijing Lu (Běijīng Lù, 北京路) to the shopping street to get the feeling of the old city center. Walk along the street towards the south and admire the night-time view of the Pearl River (Zhū Jiāng,珠江).
2. For a completely different feeling go to Tianhe (Tīanhé Qū, 天河区), which is the new city center with shiny skyscrapers and expensive shopping malls. Don't forget to visit the Xinhua book center which has an English book store on the 4th floor.
3. In order to get a taste of history visit the Chen Clan Academy along Metro Line 1.
4. Or visit the Xiaozhou village (Xiǎozhōu, 小洲) in the south.
5. For a local activity, visit the Sun Yat-Sen University north gate (Zhōngshān Dàxué běi mén, 中山大学北门) where every evening the square is filled with people dancing, doing taiji and practicing breakdance moves.
China Travel: What is the one thing you wish you'd known about China before arriving?
Sara: I did my research quite well before coming to China, but there's something I would like to emphasize to everyone wanting to visit or live in China: Bring your patience with you!
A visit to any kind of office usually takes a day of jumping from counter to counter. Buying shampoo gets difficult if you don't know Chinese and accidentally buy conditioner every time. And even if you do speak Chinese, be patient with locals when they have difficulties understanding you. I think with a lot of patience, life in China becomes much more enjoyable.
China Travel: What do you miss most from home?
Sara: From all of the great people I know in Finland, I miss my sister and two brothers the most. I hate that I can't be part of their daily lives and important days. I only visit Finland once a year so there's a lot I'm missing while I am in China. Besides them I miss Finnish food a lot! Rye bread, Karelian pies, chocolate and anything my mom cooks plus my dad's pancakes. When I go to Finland I always buy lot of food to bring back with me but it doesn't last very long when I get back to Guangzhou. I even taught my Chinese boyfriend to eat Karelian pies, a traditional Finnish bread.
China Travel: What would you miss most in China if you were to leave tomorrow?
Sara: If I could take my Chinese boyfriend with me and wouldn't have to miss him, I would definitely miss the chance to continue my exploration of China. I can't name just one thing, but all in all it's just fascinating for me to live here and try to figure out what China is, and what Chinese people are.
China Travel: What three words sum up your China experience?
Sara: A "dream come true."
To find out more about Sara and her life in Guangzhou, check out her blog, Living a Dream in China.